One popular saying that has always struck me as particularly stupid and harmful is, “People don’t change.” Although everyone has ingrained personality traits, we are not held captive by them. Believing that we cannot change encourages us to accept our weaknesses. How many people with substance problems claim they are not capable of stopping? It is much easier to continue a harmful behaviour when responsibility is placed on an outside force like genetics or an “addictive personality”.
Saying people cannot change is the same as saying people cannot learn. When we learn something new that knowledge fundamentally changes us. Each piece of information adds to our personal database, creating additional resources to draw on when interacting with the outside world. We face the same temptations to engage in negative behaviour, but we also build a body of experience that tells us the reward is not worth the penalty.
In a sense we are always changing and always staying the same. When I compare myself of today with myself from a few years ago, I observe that I am the same but more. I am the same in how I think and process information but experience has changed the way I interpret everything. Every day adds a new layer of character. We should anticipate aging with optimism rather than dread. As we grow old the beauty steals inward.
The saying “people don’t change” is harmful because it denies the possibility of redemption. There is something profound about the redeemed. The man who is experienced the lowest step of existence and conquered his personal demons has an empathy that is lacking in more saintly people. In a society supposedly built on the religious doctrine of forgiveness it is remarkable how eager we are to label people as permanent degenerates. Circumstance and hardship lead many good people to do foolish things. To say those mistakes are irredeemable is hypocritical. If the world considered only our most depraved moments, how would we be judged?
People do change. We make every decision for the first time with no obligation to the past. If we control anything, we control our own thoughts and behaviour. If can improve anything, it should be ourselves.